CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/ MR. ARKADIN (Christmas Write-off): Orson's Noirish Gooseliver.
[NOTE: Clinton Heylin refers to this review in his study, DESPITE THE SYSTEM; Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood System (Chicago Review Press, 2005), for its approximation of what CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/MR. ARKADIN was before it was re-edited. Stefan Droessler of the Munich Film Museum has indicated that the review was helpful to him in his Criterion restoration of the film (The Complete MR. ARKADIN, a.k.a. Confidential Report, Criterion: 2006). See further note at end of this review.]
In the Summer of 1955, while in the U.S. Army, stationed in England, I saw a version of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (aka MR. ARKADIN, M. ARKADIN, or DOSSIER SECRET) by Writer/Director Orson Welles. I shall briefly describe that experience, out of the spider webs in my cerebrum. It was one of the most startling, black magical films I have ever seen.
This CONFIDENTIAL REPORT began with a fade in of the nude body of a young woman lying on a beach, and then a close up of her face and open eyes.
(The sound of waves. The voice of Adventurer Guy Van Stratten [Robert Arden] spoke a eulogy for Milly [Patricia Medina] and trailed off.) The camera lifted in a lap dissolve to an airplane flying aimlessly. (Sound of engine. A Narrator [Welles] told us that the sighting of this plane on Christmas Morning last eventually threw half a dozen European governments into turmoil, and that the film would reveal why.)
Another dissolve, this one to black, and almost immediately, a cell door opened in a bright rectangle near mid-screen, and an old man, Jacob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff), came blinking into the light. Because he was near death, Zouk was being released from a German prison, where he had been confined for 14 years. As he stumbled reluctantly down the hall, Zouk complained that he didn't want to go outside, that he had forebodings. The jailer said, too bad, he was pardoned and had to go. Zouk's mind filled with strange, violent images from World War II and before.
(Cut to a tenement at Sabastian Platt 16, Munich, Germany.) Van Stratten took up the narration again, finding Zouk, and after a time, explaining to Zouk in flashback how it was he had come to this bleak city tenement, at the bidding of one Gregory Arkadin (Welles), on Christmas Eve.
The last part of the film revealed why the plane in the first sequence was flying with no one in it.
All the credits were at the end, a practice Welles favored.
The CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (MR. ARKADIN), in my memory, cannot be the same film released after being taken away from Writer/Director Welles in 1954, but it may have been a test assemblage of the film he had wanted to present to his public. If so, it is the best of its kind I ever saw.
CONFIDENTIAL REPORT made a crazy triangle of Zouk, Van Stratten and Arkadin as a metaphor for Post War Europe, but that film is gone. In fact, critics claim no one ever saw it outside a screening room, but I did. It was in a short limited release at a theater in London's Leicester Square that summer of '55, when Welles' presented a three week run of his play, Moby Dick -- Rehearsed, at The Duke of York's Theater, one of my great theater-going experiences.
Shortly after seeing his play, I dragged two Army buddies to what must have been a sort of sneak preview of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT, as it was titled, and we were bowled over. A different version played London in August of 1955, and another was shown in France a year later. A cut, said to be pretty much the one we have now, opened as MR. ARKADIN in the U.S. at The New Yorker Theater in 1962.
As a matter of fact, in various film archives around the World, over a dozen editions of MR ARKADIN/CONFIDENTIAL REPORT appear to reside. (To complicate matters, Welles also shot a version in Spanish, with some cast changes.) These films range from 70 minutes to something over 100 minutes, still far short of the 120 minute film Welles planned. A few,like the 99 minute Criterion edition I have on Laserdisc, are pretty good, with something of the flashback within a flashback within a flashback preserved. Others are just plain, straight forward thrillers. Some are absurd and unwatchable.
Welles fashioned the original screen play M. ARKADIN, as it was first called, using "Greek Meets Greek," an episode from his 1951 British radio series, The Adventures of Harry Lime, combined with another screen play of his: Masquerade. He envisioned a film about a figure who was shaking Europe in the years after World War II, the way Charles Foster Kane had shaken America before the War. He modeled the Russian (Georgian) Gregory Arkadin roughly, at least in make up, after Soviet Marshal Josef Stalin, and the Greek oil shipping magnates, like Aristotle Onassis, who were rising on the World commercial scene in the early 1950's. The film was produced and financed by an old friend of Welles, a French political theorist, Louis Dolivet.
Welles, in this film, was anticipating a hard truth about Christmas. In the 1950's, just as the commercial madness of the season, driven by "planned obsolescence," frighted by the need for full employment in the face of Communism, was turning us into a rabble of greedy consumers, Welles saw that, for the have-nots and a majority of the elderly in the Western World, the Holidays, whatever ones faith or lack of it, was a cruel sham. A clue to this subtext is when the wealthy Arkadin looks into the face of the cowering, supine pauper Zouk and laughs.
"What are you laughing at?" asks Zouk.
"At old age," smirks Arkadin.
CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (as my laserdisc copy is called) begins with a shortened sequence of the aimless single engine plane flying above Spain, and a shorter narration of the effects of the event, including the fall of at least one European government. Then we see an epigraph, white print on a black screen, which tells a little fable (one of several in the film) about an old king, who asked a jester what treasure he should give away. The jester told him to give away anything but . . . his secret. Then come the credits, introducing a Gypsy-like musical score by Paul Misraki (ALPHAVILLE, Godard, 1965). And we are retreating before Guy Van Stratten, as he stalks into the dark Munich tenement to find a bundled-up Zouk hiding in the attic. Surrounded by the detritus of the European Century, including a broken upside down photo of Hitler, Van Stratten tells Zouk why he has come.
Van Stratten was on the deck of his small yacht, moored in the Bay of Naples, with his girl Milly, one night months earlier when a released convict, similar to Zouk, was knifed on the dock. The dying man, Bracco (Gregoire Aslan) whispered one name to Van Stratten, and an additional name -- that of a woman -- to Milly.
The names, he says, are worth a small fortune.
Always on the make, the pair split up. While Milly, keeping the woman's name to herself, goes to France to seduce one of the people mentioned, Gregory Arkadin, Van Stratten tracks down Arkadin's daughter Raina (Paola Mori). She falls in love with Van Stratten, seeing him as a means of escaping her father, who has minions spying on all her activities.
When Arkadin, a power broker of immense wealth and prestige, finds out about the affair, he has a confidential report on Van Stratten prepared for Raina. (Van Stratten aka George Straitheimmer, aka George Streeter, has been a small time smuggler of gold and cigarettes, important in the black market economy flourishing in Europe after World War II.) When his move to discredit Van Stratten backfires, in a strange quid pro quo, a kind of wager, Arkadin hires Van Stratten to do a similar report on himself. If Van Stratten can find out why Arkadin, suffering from amnesia, woke up on a park bench in Zurich in 1927 with 200,000 Swiss francs in his pocket, he will get $15,000 and a chance to marry Raina.
Thus, begins a lightning chase which moves from the South of France, to Spain, to Britain, to Tangier, to Amsterdam, to Paris, to Mexico, among other places, and finally to Munich, where the story moves toward a conclusion in the grimy gloom of a Christmas in the slums. At each point where Van Stratten finds a clue to Arkadin's past, someone dies.
The melodramatic trail leads through the flea circus of a man who likes magnifying glasses (Mischa Auer), to a black marketeer (Peter Van Eyck), to a dithery antique dealer (Sir Michael Redgrave) who likes telescopes, to an ex-spy turned fashion sales person (Suzanne Flon), to a Mexican General's mistress (Katina Paxinou) and her heroin addicted husband (Frederic O'Brady).
Welles sees all these people as victims of the madness of Fascism and World War II, eventually even Arkadin himself. In the end, the original heart of the story, Zouk, an ex-tailor from Warsaw who holds the secret of Arkadin, only wants a warm Gooseliver dinner, with garlic mashed potatoes, onions and apples, to celebrate his last Season on earth.
A superb cast of character actors do some of their best work ever. In addition to famous names of their generation, like Tamiroff, Redgrave, Auer and Paxinou, late in the film a new face, soon better known, Gert Frobe (GOLDFINGER, Hamilton, 1964). He turns up in the small part of a German detective, and later still, Tamiroff's wife Tamara Shayne appears as an old prostitute.
CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/MR. ARKADIN is full of Welles' wonderful imaginative touches, such as a kind of running observation of how names could be misread, misspelled, and mis-pronounced in Europe of the time, depending on who the people were and where they came from. Then, a pin light is focused on Arakadin's left eye in the first two-thirds of the action, suggesting a One-Eyed King. Only after he is unmasked, as it were, do we see him full face. A costume party is populated with the old aristocracy and fascists, wearing Goya-esque masks of Welles' design. (It would seem to be the kind of effect which Kubrick was attempting to achieve in his EYES WIDE SHUT orgy scene.) And so, if you know what Welles was up to -- as I do, from that magical lost original -- the film makes a good deal of sense.
The photography by Jean Bougoin (BLACK ORPHEUS, 1959) catches atmospherically each of the settings, and the mood of each of its characters.
The laserdisc version I have of CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/MR. ARKADIN suffers from the dialogue dubbing problems of Welles' later films (due, ironically, to not having proper equipment when following his practice of pre-recording scenes, having actors lip-synch). And of course, this film is not anywhere near the enthralling Noir of 1955 that I have in my mind's eye.
WHICH brings us back to Louis Dolivet.
Dolivet was the last of a series of mentors who attempted to shape or protect Welles' talent over the years.
The first mentor, Welles' mother Beatrice was a pianist, crack rifle shot, suffragette who went to jail for the cause, and died at the age of 43, when he was barely nine. He said that he never recovered from her death. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) was intended as a requiem for that loss.
Longest lived and most faithful of the mentors, Roger "Skipper" Hill, his teacher at Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, encouraged his theatrical and oratorical bent from the time he was ten. Hill outlived Welles by a number of years, still guarding his pupil's accomplishments.
The third was his wealthy Virginian father Richard Head Welles, inventor, womanizer, heavy drinker, who, before dying at age 58, in 1930, took young Welles around the World to "make a man of him," sending him off on solitary adventures. Welles always expressed guilt that he contributed to his father's death, by refusing to see Dad unless he gave up drinking.
Welles' guardian, Russian-born Dr. Maurice "Dadda" Bernstein, confidant of his mother, competitor to his father, allowed him to go by himself to England and Ireland, on a sketching tour, for two years after his father's death. Director of Dublin's Gate Theater Hilton Edwards recognized the talent of the fifteen year-old there, and cast him in prominent roles, while lead actor Michael Mac Liammoir helped Welles polish his skills. They were to pop up in Welles' career for the rest of his life (most memorably, Mac Liammoir's Iago in Welles' OTHELLO, 1952).
Following more travel, and joining Katharine Cornell's Touring Company, he met his great mentor, John Houseman, who guided him through his first significant triumphs in radio, theater and the movies. They broke after Houseman helped Welles stage Richard Wright's Native Son on Broadway in 1942. The two men, sadly, feuded for the rest of their lives; Houseman continued to recriminate even after Welles' death.
Louis Dolivet, then, the final mentor, a Rumanian, a political refugee from France, met Welles in Hollywood during World War II. He had formed an organization called Free World, which urged the formation of The United Nations, and he saw Welles as a potential Senator from his native Wisconsin (against an unknown guy named Joe McCarthy in 1946); if not that, perhaps one day -- President. He encouraged Welles to work as a speech writer and speaker on FDR's later campaigns, gave Welles a column in Free World's Magazine, influential for a time; and, inadvertently, he may have been instrumental in making Welles a target for the Right Wing and commercial hacks of Hollywood, who objected to Welles' artistic and social agendas.
It was at that point, in part because of his friendship with Dolivet, that J. Edgar Hoover had a confidential dossier opened on Welles.
Dolivet no doubt encouraged Welles to get out of America before the Black List descended upon him.
But by 1955, Dolivet, something of a refugee again, was a sometime film producer. That this friend panicked, took MR. ARKADIN away from Welles at Christmastime 1954, had it recut several times, and essentially destroyed its artistic and commercial chances, illustrates the kind of ironic problem Orson Welles faced in his later career.
[UPDATE: August 2001. It occurs to me that Dolivet is a partial inspiration for the mentor figure in Welles' last screen play, The Big Brass Ring, shot a couple of years ago by George Hickenlooper.]
CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/MR. ARKADIN may also be seen as Welles' self-deprecating, psychological confidential report on his own career, and the difficulties he was having at the time with his oldest daughter Christopher -- she and a few of the above people fitting appropriate parts. Dolivet, in a sense, was also Arkadin to Welles' Van Stratten. About all Welles salvaged from this film making experience, which he considered the second great disaster of his career (after IT'S ALL TRUE, 1942/1993), was the leading lady Paula Mori, the Contessa di Falco, who became Welles' third and last wife.
The fictional Van Stratten lost out entirely.
Enjoy MR. ARKADIN or CONFIDENTIAL REPORT as a curious, noirish gift of Gooseliver (mincemeat) late in the Season of Orson Welles.
(I entered this review as part of a Christmas Write-off I was asked to do by luvsmylilanlibby.)
Other members of this Write-off were as follows:
AinsleyJo, AmyLEnsor, BedrockTime, bgoodday, bmcnichol, bpotter1, caleo, cbgresh, ChrisJarmick, CjsMommy, dandj, dreamcatcher39, erin5oaks, francesca57, frazzledspice, Grouch, gwsmith, HawgWyld, ImAmes, janesbit1, jenninca, jenni1396, Josh_G, keithpruitt, kelly60, KingJFS, lucky43560, Macresarf1, Magick1, martytdx, Mike_Bracken, monical2me, mrssmoopy, onecoolcat, pacbaystat, phineaskc, Poseidon, Presleysmama, sawasdee, seracorde11, shadow8, splitsurround, SPodgorski, teskue, Viper1963
UPDATE: Thursday, January 18, 2007: For those looking for something quite a bit closer to the original MR. ARKADIN, I recommend Stefan Droessler's edit from the Munich Film Museum, THE COMPREHENSIVE VERSION, which utilizes all known existing footage. Though Zouk's release from prison could not be found (and I don't like the placement of the last shot), Droessler has done a masterful job in bringing the other parts together in a version much closer to the one I remember.
On that basis, I'm awarding another star for Droessler's COMPREHENSIVE VERSION of MR. ARKADIN (The Criterion Collection, #322). Four Stars for Droessler!!
"The Corinth Edition" (included in the Criterion package) has merit, too, but avoid all others.
Causes Alex Fraser Supports